For this week’s post, FilmStruck put up a bunch of Ernst Lubitsch silent films. I had heard about some of these films from one of Peter Bogdanovich’s books, but I had never seen one. Lubitsch was one of the greatest comedic directors of all-time, if not the greatest, and we’ve covered him a couple times before. He made dozens of silent films in Germany, and came to the US in the early 1920s. And we’re going to look at two of them today:
Ernst Lubitsch – The Oyster Princess (1919)
Ernst Lubitsch – The Doll (1919)
This is also the first time we’ve covered two silent films. We covered Dragnet Girl previously, which was a silent Japanese crime film from Ozu. But there’s a lot of silent film to cover. And a lot of it is really interesting. Unfortunately, at the time, silent film wasn’t really treated as something of value that needed to be saved or archived. Compounding the problem is that early film stock was incredibly volatile and flammable. So a lot of it is lost. So I was surprised and delighted to see some of Lubitsch’s early films out there and available.
Let’s get into it.
The Oyster Princess (1919)
The Oyster King of America, by the name of Quaker, has an obstinate daughter Ossi, who demands a famous husband after reading about a fancy wedding in the newspaper. Her father visits a matchmaker who targets a prince named Nucki as the groom. But Nucki sends his friend Josef to check out the woman before agreeing. When Josef is mistaken for Nucki, what kind of antics will ensue?
The film is directed by Ernst Lubitsch and stars Victor Janson and Ossi Oswalda, both of whom were Lubitsch regulars in the era. Both of them star in our second film as well. Ossi Oswalda in fact was one of the best known German actresses of her era. In this film, she plays the titular “Oyster Princess”, heir to an oyster fortune built by her father Quaker, played by Janson.
One really interesting thing about film this early is seeing how different things are structurally. The film opens with a credit sequence in which the entire cast is pictured after their title card, out of costume. In addition, Lubitsch also has a similar introductory title card. The film also is broken into 4 acts, which are marked by title cards in the film as it progresses.
The Lubitsch Touch was a specific style that was coined to describe Lubitsch’s films. His comedy and storytelling were unmistakable in the era. From a modern perspective, his films are still really funny, and of course they feel very different from other silent comedies. For example, Buster Keaton was known for his incredible stunts, Charlie Chaplin was known for his ability to weave clever physical comedy and emotional stories. The Lubitsch touch includes some physical comedy, but it also includes a lot of much subtler gags. For example, when Nucki asks a group of friends to lend him money, the request is passed down the line until the man at the end produces a wad of cash. As it’s passed back, each man surreptitiously takes a bill for himself before it finally gets to Nucki. These kinds of gags are hard to portray on film, but Lubitsch was able to make it work. Also in Chaplin and Keaton films, they were the center of attention. In Lubitsch films, he was able to spread the comedy around, he also frequently had female protagonists, or at least strong female characters in his film, which was more common in the silent era, but became more of a novelty as time went on.
This film spends most of it’s first act establishing how rich and oblivious Quaker is. We start with him surrounded by servants, dictating things to a small army of typists. He is then called away to see his daughter.
We then meet Ossi. One thing that surprised me is that the character and actress have the same name, the same thing happens in our second film. It makes me wonder about the nature of German silent film. Was it something that this actress specifically did? Was it a branding thing? I’m not sure. But looking at her IMDb, it happened a lot in this era, especially in Lubitsch films. So maybe it was just a private joke between actress and director.
In her intro scene, she is absolutely trashing her room, destroying everything in sight. Her father walks in, and she explains she’s upset because there’s a headline about a fancy wedding. She demands a husband. Here we see Ossi as she truly is, not trying to impress anyone, just a tornado of chaos and desire, unable or unwilling to control herself.
Her father does what rich men might do, he goes to a matchmaker named Seligson to purchase a husband with a good family tree. We get a funny introduction with Seligson, in his room which is wallpapered with potential marriage material. There’s a very funny bit of physical business after he receives the request from Quaker, where he climbs up and down a ladder which moves back and forth along the wall of images, looking for an appropriate match. He discovers Prince Nucki, and though his information tells him that he’s deep in debt, and doesn’t want to get married, he decides to go pitch the Oyster Princess to the Prince.
When we meet Nucki, he is not the regal prince we might have expected. He lives in a one room apartment with his friend Josef, and he’s washing his own socks in the squalid apartment. There’s another really funny bit of business here, where the two men hear a knock at the door, and Nucki hides all the rings and jewelry he wears. Once they discover it’s a respectable guest, they go back and put it all on. They then quickly clean up the apartment, and set up a makeshift throne for Nucki to sit on.
Seligson then pitches Ossi, but of course, he’s never met her and knows nothing about her. Nucki decides that Josef should go and meet Ossi. He gives him a nice suit to wear and sends him along.
Josef is portrayed as fairly dumb and unattractive. But when he arrives at Quaker’s mansion, he’s asked for a card. Since he’s wearing Nucki’s clothes, all he can produce is one of the prince’s cards.
Upon hearing that the ‘prince’ has arrived, Ossi jumps into action, being prepared by an army of maids who bathe her, dry her, perfume her, massage her, and dress her. Quaker decides to take a long nap. Josef is placed in a large practically empty room, and has to entertain himself by dancing around the room using the floor pattern as a guide, and then batting around a call button for the servants.
The grooming scene with Ossi is extensive and funny. It also really hits home just how rich Quaker is. There seem to be at least 20 women waiting on Ossi, ensuring she doesn’t have to do anything for herself.
Once her grooming is complete, Ossi goes to look at Josef, who she believes is Prince Nucki. She judges him harshly, but in the end decides that he’s a prince, and demands he marry her. He doesn’t seem capable of saying no, and they go immediately. Josef still introduces himself as Nucki, and marries Ossi. All of this has happened while Quaker has been taking his nap.
We get some more funny bits once Quaker has learned of the marriage involving the wedding celebration, in which hundreds of people are invited over for dinner. Josef starts revealing more of his low class upbringing, while a foxtrot party breaks out. The comedy in this section mainly comes from the bandleader, who’s really hamming it up. This is followed by Josef being shut out of the wedding suite for the night.
The film has ignored Nucki throughout all of this, but we finally get back to him when his friends take him out for a night of partying. The next morning, he’s completely plastered, and we discover what Ossi does all day. She volunteers for a center for the treatment of dipsomania. Dipsomania you ask? Well I had to look it up as well, it’s an old-timey phrase for alcoholism. Nucki is picked up and brought to the center. All of the women are completely enamored of his good looks, and begin arguing over who gets to treat him. Ossi suggests a boxing match to decide, which sounds insane, but all the other women agree to it. The women start fighting it out and Ossi is the last one standing.
This all leads to the solution to the story, wherein Josef finds Nucki and Ossi in her room, and they’ve fallen in love. Josef laughs, and reveals that they are already married, since he used Nucki’s name. This seems absolutely crazy, and definitely not legal, but it’s a fun solution to the problem of the story, and gets us to the end, where Nucki and Ossi are together and happy.
The Doll (1919)
A Baron has a single heir, and doesn’t want his line to die out, so he asks his nephew Lancelot to get married, bringing in dozens of women to meet him. Lancelot runs, but when he learns that his uncle will give him a dowry of 300,000 francs to get married, he decides to marry a life-like doll to trick his uncle and get the money. But when the doll is replaced with a real woman, will he notice in time?
The film is again directed by Lubitsch and stars Ossi Oswalda and Victor Janson again, along with some actors we didn’t see earlier. Much like the previous film, the structure of this one is interesting all on it’s own.
It begins with Lubitsch himself opening a large box and setting up a scene, seemingly made out of cardboard. It’s a little house scene with a front yard with trees, and a path. When he’s done, Lubitsch steps away and the camera cuts into a live scene, where our main character Lancelot steps out. It’s the kind of thing that only could have happened in this early era of film. Some films could manage this with some kind of neutral character, like a narrator, or storyteller, but it’s so strange to see the director himself doing something like this. I really loved the idea, and I’d love to see it pulled off by a modern director. It sets the stage that this is a fantasy, and that nothing we’re seeing is real. The entire film has this fantasy like quality in the sets and action.
But let’s be clear, this film is very very strange. Let’s start with Lancelot. Upon hearing that his uncle wants him to get married, he immediately panics and runs for his life rather than meet the women of the village that have come to offer their hands in marriage. He eventually makes it to a monastery, where he is taken in. When the monks see an ad in the paper from the Baron, who is offering Lancelot 300,000 as a dowry if he gets married, they suggest he marry a lifelike doll that they have heard about, and then give the money to them. Lancelot likes this idea, because he appears to be completely terrified of women.
In fact, he’s so terrified of women, it made me wonder if he was being coded as homosexual in this film. His fear of women is so visceral and powerful, I had to wonder if this was a common archetype in film of the era, and if it might mean something that the filmmakers weren’t allowed to say about the character. Not sure on this.
However, let’s go back to the idea that Lancelot would give all his money to the monastery. This is a completely insane idea on several levels, even if we ignore the existence of lifelike dolls. Lancelot never even seems to consider the idea that he might keep the money for himself, the plan is always to give it to the monks, and he never questions it. It’s a big hole in the film.
This brings us to the lifelike dolls, which are made by a man named Hilarius, played by Victor Janson. His latest creation is a doll identical to his daughter Ossi, which raises an entire separate series of questions about the psychology of the man doing that. As he finishes up the doll, Lubitsch smartly shows us a little demonstration of what the doll can do. The doll isn’t capable of much more than dancing around, and works via a wind up, but it looks exactly like his daughter.
At this point, we also meet Hilarius’ apprentice, who is portrayed as deeply mentally disturbed. In 1919, perhaps audiences could have laughed it off. But a century later, this person has no place in society. When he’s left alone with the Ossi doll, he professes his undying love for it, and begins to dance around with it. He then breaks it, and the real Ossi offers to take it’s place in the showroom while he fixes it, after he attempts suicide by drinking paint. He leads the real Ossi to the showroom, and when encountering her mother, takes the opportunity to assault Ossi by forcing her to kiss him when he knows she can’t object.
Lancelot takes the real Ossi, who he assumes is a doll with him to trick his uncle. Later, when Hilarius catches the apprentice fixing the doll, he realizes what has happened, and we get into an extended fight scene. The apprentice attempts suicide by paint again, and then runs rampant through the house, using a set of dishes as a weapon, before jumping out the window and escaping. Even later, when Hilarius is sleepwalking on some roofs, the apprentice strongly considers murdering him by shouting and startling him into a fall before relenting.
Just watching this character on screen makes my skin crawl. In a film where a man terrified of women tries to marry a doll to defraud his uncle out of a massive amount of money, the apprentice is still the creepiest thing in the film.
We get a lot of good comedy bits once Lancelot introduces Ossi to his uncle, trying to make excuses for her. Ossi does her part by playing the doll around Lancelot, but often drops the facade when he’s not around. Lancelot is also portrayed as deeply, deeply stupid. He works very hard to ascribe every strange thing that Ossi does to some miracle of the mechanism. For example, he takes her to a room to put on a wedding dress, and begins to undress her, and she smacks his hands away. He asks cautiously if she can redress herself, and she manages to convince him that she can.
This is the strongest aspect of the film, when Lancelot doesn’t know that she’s real, and she toys with him.
In the end, he returns to the monastery to deliver all of the money, again, an action that makes no sense, and the monks try to put Ossi in the junk room. But she sneaks into Lancelot’s room, where he tries to use her as a coat rack, and then dreams about kissing her. When he wakes, she’s there, and he’s gotten over his fear of women. They live happily ever after. Or at least as happily as you can after the horror show they’ve been through.
The Double Feature
Lubitsch has been one of my favorite filmmakers ever since I first saw one of his films about a decade ago now. And we still haven’t gotten to my favorite Lubitsch film, which I suppose we will eventually. There’s definitely a disconnect here between his later films and these earlier films, and the silent era and the sound era. Films were just different in the early days. Filmmakers were still trying to understand what they could do with the mediums, and in many cases film was treated as disposable. Just stock for the next week in the theater before being tossed away.
Now Lubitsch figured out a lot about film long before anyone else did, but these films definitely have a strange quality about them. That being said, I greatly enjoyed The Oyster Princess. I thought it held up really well, and was really funny and clever. But for The Doll, I just couldn’t get past some of the stranger character aspects. The apprentice is strange enough, but Lancelot also confused me, considering how happy he was to give away a life changing amount of money to a group of monks he met just a few days or weeks before. There were still a lot of funny moments in The Doll, but I can’t really recommend it unless you want to psychoanalyze the various characters.
By the time this posts, I’m about a week away from getting on a plane and leaving for Amsterdam for an extended academic trip. So I think this is going to be my last regular post for awhile. I need to get quite a bit done before I leave, and I don’t think I’ll be able to devote most of my Sunday to writing. And once I’m in Amsterdam, I don’t know what I’ll have access to film-wise. I might try some experiments where I look at things besides film. I’m hoping to keep my posts going, but no promises. Because of that, I won’t be announcing the next films in this section, and I’ll simply wrap it up here.
See you in the future.